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Category: Multifaith Initiatives

Ethics of a Philadelphia Jail

This post was written by Rabbi Michael Ramberg (RRC, '12) 2014-15 Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Teaching Fellow.

“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders …” So begins Pirke Avot,”Ethics of the Sages,” the ancient collection of rabbinic wisdom that many Jews are reading now, the period between Passover and Shavuot, which corresponds to the mythic time covering the journey from Egyptian slavery to the Sinai revelation of how to live as a free people. When I had the opportunity to visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) in the Philadelphia jail system a few sayings from Pirke Avot came to mind.

“Find yourself a teacher” (Pirke Avot 1.6, 16)

I had the opportunity to visit the jail, along with a group of other participants in RRC’s Crime and Punishment class, thanks to two remarkable teachers: Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, Director of RRC’s Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives, who organized the class, and Chaplain Phyllis Taylor, who tirelessly served inmates and staff in CFCF for 18 years and has helped countless people to learn about the criminal justice system with great depth and compassion.

“Receive everyone with a cheerful face.” (1:15)

At CFCF Chaplain Taylor wisely left most of the teaching to the correctional officers (COs), but she did tell us that it is her practice to greet every inmate with a warm smile and a wave. As we were walking back to our cars on the outside of the razor-wire topped fence I heard a sound I mistook for a crackling microphone but Phyllis knew it was the sound of inmates tapping on their windows to get her attention, perhaps just to make some contact with the outside world, and she responded by turning to wave at the windows even though nobody could be seen through the one-way glass. I followed Phyllis’s advice and example and hopefully brought inmates at least a confirmation that someone sees them as a human being, which is a feeling that might be all too rare as an inmate. In the process, I realized that part of the wisdom of this teaching is that it can catalyze a human connection with others, which is especially important when the stigmatized differences and between the people meeting might make such a connection unlikely. In my case, that of a white free person encountering black incarcerated people, I very much needed this catalyst.

“Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14)

So this is not a saying from Pirke Avot, but the rabbis made the broad implications of this biblical statement explicit—it applies to any situation in which a person is put in a situation that makes some harmful failure unavoidable. Many of the conditions at CFCF, if just taken alone, would amount to placing a stumbling block before the blind—e.g., overcrowding, isolation from the outside world, inadequate opportunities for education/work/religious expression, untreated mental illness, vulnerability to exploitation at the hands of other inmates, lack of hope in the future, dehumanizing bureaucratic treatment—but the combination of them seem to make it inevitable that inmates will harm themselves, each other and correctional officers. Phyllis shared her opinion that real rehabilitation is extremely rare in such circumstances. The correctional officer who led our tour said that the rare inmate who “gets it” and commits to changing his conduct does so because jail is so awful and he never wants to have to return. (Of course, given the challenges of reentry, even firmly committing to change one’s is no guarantee against recidivism.)

“Don’t judge your fellow until you reach his place.” (2.5)

CFCFThe officer who led our tour of CFCF started out by welcoming us to referred to “the crown jewel” of the Philadelphia Prison System. This expression made members of our group uncomfortable—how can any jail be a “crown jewel”?!—but it made more sense over time. Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility is named in honor of Warden Patrick N. Curran and Deputy Warden Robert F. Fromhold, who were murdered at Holmesburg Prison on May 31, 1973. While these are the only two officers knows to have been killed on duty in the Philadelphia Prison System, the threat of violence still looms over the place. I asked the officer who led our tour if seeing the same inmates coming into jail again and again over the years makes him feel his work isn’t worthwhile and he said no, the only way he measures success is by whether every member of his team makes it out of the jail at the end of the day in the same condition in which they came in. Chaplain Taylor told us that while some of the rules governing the jail may seem extreme—e.g., the extensive intrusive searches entering inmates undergo and the prohibition against normal toothbrushes—they are responses to tragedies involving harm suffered by inmates and/or COs. Because of CFCF’s particular design, which makes the mass movement of inmates unnecessary, and the fact that it is air-conditioned, which tempers from igniting in Philly’s steamy summer weather, CFCF is known as the safest jail for COs.

Given the harmful but understandable internal logic that appears to govern places like CFCF, it seems incredibly unlikely that large scale positive change, moving away from Egypt and towards Sinai, will originate from within it. In order for change to happen, those of us on the “outside” will need to become informed and take sustained action. The starting point, though, is to truly care about people who are incarcerated.

I find a pathway to this starting point in the words of Rabbi Hananiah ben Gamliel. According to the Torah, there is a limit placed on how many lashes a guilty person can receive “lest, being flogged further, to excess, your brother be degraded before your eyes” (Deut. 25:3). Rabbi Hananiah said, “Behold, since he [the criminal] has been flogged, he is like your brother” (b Megillah 7b). This is how we should regard those who have been punished in the criminal justice system created by our elected officials and funded with our taxes.

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Crime and Punishment: The Darkness and the Light

This post was written by Rabbi Michael Ramberg (RRC, '12) 2014-15 Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Teaching Fellow.

I once heard these words, “Moses approached the darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18),” explained as follows: That’s where God can be found, in the darkness.

My participation in RRC’s Crime and Punishment class has exposed me to a truly disturbing amount of darkness. The staggering, heart-wrenching pain and violence existing around, and all too often produced by, the criminal justice system devours offenders, their victims and the people and communities connected to them. But as the Exodus verse suggests, learning of this darkness has also exposed me to impressive godliness.

E.M.I.R. Mural ArtworkFor this session on Crime and Punishment, class coordinator Chaplain Phyllis Taylor brought us to EMIR (Every Murder is Real). Founded by the mother of 20-year old murder victim Emir Greene, EMIR supports the healing process of murder victims’ families and their communities.

We first heard about the challenges of returning citizens’ reentry into society from Hannah Zellman, anti-mass incarceration activist and Program Director of the Institute for Community Justice (ICJ). She described the criminal justice system as the “apex of systems of oppression,” including racism and white supremacy, poverty and the effects of capitalism, homophobia and transphobia, and more. The ICJ drop-in center provides a safe, stigma-free space, classes and trainings to returning citizens facing the extremely daunting task of reentering a world that has changed while they were behind bars. She told us about one man who thought everyone was crazy after his release because he saw them all walking around talking to themselves—he had never seen anyone using Bluetooth. Despite Philadelphia’s progressive “ban the box” ordinance, Ms. Zellman finds it hard to give the people she serves hope that they will find a job in this city where there aren’t enough jobs to begin with, and when formerly incarcerated people often lack the support and skills to stay in a job if they are lucky enough to find one. The near impossibility of finding a job is one of the biggest reasons that people commit crimes again. 

Still, Ms. Zellman is constantly amazed by the incredible potential people have for transformation. She told us the story of a woman who was incarcerated and lost the custody of one of her children. She would push his old, empty stroller around to mark her pain at his absence; through her own resilience and extensive work with advocates, this woman learned to manage her rage and recently regained custody of her child. In light of this story, Ms. Zellman’s admission that she only goes to synagogue on the Jewish High Holidays makes perfect sense, as that is the time of year we celebrate the power of teshuvah, human transformation.

As we turned from the challenge of societal reentry to the experience of victims, Ms. Zellman and Chantay Love, EMIR’s Program Director, agreed that people overemphasize the distinction between offenders and victims, because invariably the offenders have been victimized on multiple levels, which plays a powerful role in leading to their crime. Ms. Love told us that the murder of a family member breaks the family system to such a degree that the surviving family members have to relearn how to do such simple things as eat a meal together. Individual family members also have to adjust—mothers have to find the strength to wake up in the morning and go back to work, fathers have to learn how to look at their surviving children and once again show up in the role of dad. 

Amidst all this darkness, however, godliness was powerfully present. EMIR helps victims’ families to find their healing and sometimes even brings healing to those who have committed murder. EMIR works with victims’ families to express their desires for the murderer’s punishment, desires which often include a request for compassion - which surprises the District Attorney, who is usually seeking a harsher penalty. Ms. Love told us about one family that asked for a lighter sentence for their daughter’s killer because the killer suffers from HIV; the victim’s family hoped she would be released in time to spend some time with her family.

This darkness I have come to see in and around the US criminal justice system is especially striking to me because of another kind of darkness—my relative ignorance, until recently, of all of this suffering. While I have become largely desensitized to much of the daily horror that exists in our world, the horrors of our criminal justice system are new to me and as such stand out starkly.  

I close with this prayer, translated from Leon Gieco’s song Solo le Pido a Dios:

I only ask of God

That I not be indifferent to pain.

That dry death not find me empty,

Having failed to do enough.

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Multifaith Breakfast Salon on Friday, April 17, 2015

Emergent Mind - Philip Clayton

If you are unable to attend our breakfast but would like to hear Philip present this program, consider attending the event at Chestnut Hill College on Thursday, April 16th from 7:00 until 9:00 PM.

Our breakfast is by invitation only. Please let us know if you can join us—RSVP to Joan Hollenbach at JHollenbach@rrc.edu or 215.576.0800 x 135 by Tuesday, April 7, 2015.

 

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Working Towards Our Interfaith Future Together

Exciting news from PERL (Philadelphia Emerging Religious Leaders)! The leadership council proudly invites all local emerging religious leaders to their first public event Sunday, April 6. Check out the flyer below!

Funded through the generosity of the Henry Luce Foundation and the Legacy Heritage Fund, PERL is an interfaith organization by and for seminarians, rabbinical students and graduate students who gather to build relationships, learn and practice the tools of interfaith dialogue, and pursue social justice together.

Now in its second year, the student leadership core has grown to include Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Sikh emerging leaders from local seminaries and universities.

The group has been actively involved with POWER, working on social justice issues in our city together. Next month, PERL is proudly offering its first major outreach program, an Interfaith Dialogue Training to build relationships and to learn and practice tools of interfaith dialogue.

See below for the event information and forward this news to anyone whom you think would be interested. Note that an "emerging religious leader" can be defined broadly to include seminarians, rabbinical students, graduate students and professionals studying for or entering positions of leadership as clergy, teachers, academics, chaplains, counselors, faith-based professionals and lay leaders in their religious communities.

To RSVP for the event, contact: Raha Rafii, rafii@sas.upenn.edu
To contact PERL Organizer and RRC rabbinical student Josh Weisman:  joshweisman@gmail.com

Working Towards Our Interfaith Future Together

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Dreams of Peace: Arabic for Interfaith Engagement

We are thrilled to announce an exciting new course this Spring at RRC for students and qualified community members. This Introduction to Arabic course will provide the tools needed to reach out to Muslim American dialogue partners and to Arabs in the Middle East.

We believe that learning a foreign language can be a powerful peace building practice.

The flyer below provides the details:

Arabic for Interfaith Engagement

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In the Depths: Prison Chaplaincy and Incarceration in America

The Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives proudly announces our newest initiative:  a workshop entitled In The Depths:  Prison Chaplaincy and Incarceration in America. For several years, students at RRC have been expressing interest in issues related to incarceration in our country. We are blessed to have in our city a unique resource, Phyllis B. Taylor, R.N, a Jewish woman who has served for over 15 years as a Correctional Chaplain in the Philadelphia Prison System. Phyllis has worked with inmates, families, and staff of all faiths. She brings to that work decades of experience as a nurse and a nationally known expert in the field of hospice, grief and bereavement.  In addition, Phyllis and has been an activist for social justice since 1961.

Phyllis will share her wealth of experience with prison work from two perspectives:  pastoral care/chaplaincy (Jewish and interfaith) and social justice advocacy. She will address issues of incarceration in light of race, gender, class, and family systems. Guest speakers will include a corrections officer, a former inmate, a crime victim, and an advocate for systemic change.

The workshop will take place at RRC on Wednesday and Thursday, January 29th and 30th from 9-4.  We welcome auditors from the community, especially rabbis and other members of the clergy.

Prison Chaplaincy Workshop

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